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The Parthenon Marbles debate – who owns the sculptures?

The Parthenon Marbles have managed to hit the headlines many times in the past year, for a variety of reasons [1].

Robert Fulford’s article looks at some of the reasons for this, along with the arguments from both sides. This blog gets a mention too – for its “witty and trenchant” opinions.

Part of the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum [2]

Part of the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum

National Post [3]

The marble mouth debate over who really owns ancient Athens’ classics
Robert Fulford
January 20, 2015 12:14 PM ET

Last week, in the middle of an election campaign, the Greek parliament abruptly turned its attention to ancient Athenian culture. An opposition member, Tasos Kourakis, from the left-radical party that’s expected to win the election on Jan. 25, complained that Greek children are being badly educated on Lord Elgin and the marbles he stole from Athens and sold to the British Museum.

A Greek school textbook, used for the last 10 years, says the sculptures were “transported” to Britain. That’s wrong, Kourakis said. “The Elgin Marbles, gentlemen of the ministry of education, were not ‘transported’ but snatched by force.” For decades Greece has been demanding that Britain return the sculptures to Athens, a demand politicians treat as a centerpiece of national pride.

The education ministry implied that this complaint was part of the election campaign. Nevertheless, education minister Andreas Loverdos announced that the offending textbook will be withdrawn and another substituted. Meanwhile, teachers will instruct students on the government-approved version of history.

In Greece, the marbles never cease to make news. Recently the British Museum lent a magnificent Parthenon sculpture, the one depicting the river-god Ilissos, to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Greek politicians, who believe it’s bad enough that the marbles have been in London for more than two centuries, made it clear that lending one of them was going too far. The prime minister called it “an affront to the Greek people.” The British Museum has recently been considering loans of three pieces to other foreign museums, which the Greeks view as another outrage.

Amal Clooney, the human rights lawyer who recently married George Clooney, made another kind of news by joining the legal team that advises the Greek government on how to make a legal case for the return of the marbles.

The Parthenon began life some 2,500 years ago, as a temple dedicated to Athena, the city’s patron goddess. Bold, powerful sculptures on the building illustrated gods, goddesses, soldiers and horses. In the fifth century of the Christian era the Parthenon was converted into a church and for a thousand years it was the Church of the Virgin Mary of the Athenians. Then it became a mosque. In 1687, when Athens was attacked by the Venetians, the Parthenon was used to store gunpowder. An explosion blew off the roof and wrecked many sculptures. Ever since, the building has been a ruin.

By 1801 Athens had been part of the Ottoman Empire for about 350 years. In that year Lord Elgin, a British ambassador, appeared on the scene. By then about half of the original sculptures had been destroyed. Elgin, a connoisseur of ancient art, obtained the permission of the Ottoman authorities to take about half of the remaining sculptures to Britain, where he sold them to the British Museum. Other Parthenon sculptures are in the Louvre, the Vatican museums, and elsewhere in Europe. Of the marbles that survived, about 60% are divided between the Acropolis Museum in Athens and the British Museum. So the widespread idea that the British Museum holds the Parthenon sculptures is a long way from the truth.

Even so, in London they make an impressive and uniquely exhilarating museum exhibit, one of the great free-to-everybody shows in world culture. Spend an hour in the great hall that contains them, follow the printed guide or the recorded commentary, and you may well feel that you have made a profound and personal connection with Athenian art.

James Cuno, an American art historian, the former director of the Art Institute of Chicago, has persistently made the case for letting the marbles stay where they are. In books like Who Owns Antiquity? and many papers, he and like-minded colleagues have argued that significant antiquities are properly the possessions of humanity, not the territory where they were found. Modern Egypt, Greece, Turkey and many other places are at best vaguely connected with the ancient world. In culture, language, philosophy and religion their bonds with the artists who made historic objects are slight. They often demand the right to “reclaim” art to which they never before had any persuasive claim. Politicians, when they make these demands, are usually demagogues who want to enhance their reputations by celebrating national identity. Against that kind of nationalism, the historians who follow Cuno frame their arguments in the language of cultural pluralism.

Cuno claims we should understand a great museum as a way to promote tolerance and the understanding of differences in the world. The encyclopaedic museum, by bringing all the world’s cultures together in a secular, cosmopolitan space, enlarges everyone’s view of the world and embodies the 18th-century Enlightenment ideal of humanity. It’s an argument against emphasizing national differences.

But feelings on the other side are passionately held, and not only by Greeks. Matthew Taylor, an architect in the U.K., runs a witty and trenchant blog under the name Elginism (elginism.com) a word he defines as “An act of cultural vandalism.” He and other restorationists churn out arguments directed against the British Museum and any other institutions, international or British, that may someday influence the future home of the marbles.

For many years these cherished objects have been called the “Elgin marbles,” which Greeks and others have always considered an irksome demonstration of British chutzpah. As recently as 1984 the British Museum called one of its books The Elgin Marbles, but no more. The BM now notes parenthetically that the sculptures are “sometimes known as” the Elgin Marbles but otherwise calls them the Parthenon sculptures. Nevertheless, in travel guides and most newspapers, they remain the Elgin Marbles.

This was a point the late actress Melina Mercouri liked to make when she was Greece’s minister of culture in the 1980s and 1990s. She campaigned hard but in vain to have the marbles transferred to Athens. In her speech at the Oxford Union in 1986 she tried at least to correct the name. She said she was speaking of the Parthenon marbles because there is no such thing as the Elgin marbles. “There is a Michelangelo David. There is a Da Vinci Last Supper. There are no Elgin marbles!” She made no progress on the question of possession but on the name of the sculptures her point is being adopted — though of course very slowly.